Articles Tagged with Alternative Investments

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In February, California State Treasurer, John Chiang along with State Assemblyman Ken Cooley sponsored Assembly Bill (AB) 2833 which, if enacted, would require private equity firms to disclose fees and expenses for public pensions or retirement systems in California.

On March 17, 2016 Assemblyman Cooley submitted an amendment to the legislation that would include the University of California pension system as a pension covered by the newly proposed disclosure rules.  Additionally, the legislation has been broadened to include all Alternative Investment Vehicles (defined as private equity funds, venture funds, hedge funds or absolute return funds) and require a disclosure of:

  • Annual fees and expenses paid to an alternative investment vehicle
  • Annual fees and expenses not previously disclosed including carried interest
  • Annual fees and expenses paid by portfolio companies of the alternative investment vehicle
  • The gross rate or return of each alternative investment vehicle since inception

Finally, the legislation would require public pensions or retirement systems to have an annual meeting that is open to the public.  At the public meeting the public pension or retirement system would be required to disclose:

  • Any fees and expenses required to be disclosed as listed above, subject to the exceptions provided in the California Public Records Act Section 6254.26

The full text of the amended AB 2833 can be found here.

Our prior post on the public pension fee and expense disclosure can be found here.

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In the summer the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) published its advice and opinion on the proposal to extend the marketing passport to non-EU alternative investment fund managers (AIFM) and non-EU funds.  The passport would enable non-EU AIFMs to market their funds across the EU under the single AIFMD regime, rather than seeking investors using the individual countries’ national private placement regimes (NPPR).

As part of the review, ESMA assessed six countries’ regulatory regimes in the context of investor protection, market disruption, competition and monitoring systemic risk.  The outcome of the investigations was mixed.  Whilst Guernsey, Jersey and Switzerland were identified as jurisdictions to which the passport could be extended, it was not such good news for Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States.

For the US, ESMA identified obstacles to the extension.  Chief among these are the absence of remuneration rules for US investment managers and the “unlevel playing field” of the restrictions on EU funds to access US retail investors.  At present, in order for the passport to be extended to the US substantive changes would need to be made to US federal securities laws and regulations regarding the marketing of private funds in the US.  Whilst the SEC does focus on inadequate disclosures of fees, costs and expenses (see our posts here and here), it is highly unlikely that the legislative changes necessary to satisfy ESMA will be forthcoming in the near future.  Consequently US managers will need to continue accessing European investors either by way of the NPPR or reverse solicitation for the foreseeable future.  Each of those approaches continue to bring their own challenges, especially in the absence of guidance regarding the reverse solicitation exemption.

And what of the Cayman Islands?  As you may have noted from the list above, the Cayman Islands was not included as part of ESMA’s first assessments.  This a further blow to US investment managers and the inclusion of the territory on ESMA’s list of relevant jurisdictions will offer little comfort given the time required to conduct an assessment.

All in all, not a great deal has changed for the US firms.

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The SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations (“OCIE”) recently released its Examination Priorities for 2015.  The priorities represent certain practices and products that OCIE believes present a potentially higher risk to investors and/or the integrity of the US capital markets.  In 2015, OCIE’s priorities focus on issues involving investment advisers, broker-dealers and transfer agents and are organized into three thematic areas:

  1. Examining important matters to retail investors and investors saving for retirement, such as whether the information, advice, products and services offered is consistent with applicable law.  Specifically, OCIE has identified the following examination priorities:
  • Fee Selection and Reverse Churning – Where an adviser offers a variety of fee arrangements, OCIE will focus on recommendations of account types and whether they are in the best interest of the client at the inception of the arrangement and thereafter, including fees charged, services provided, and disclosures made about such relationships.
  • Sales Practices – OCIE will assess whether registrants are using improper or misleading practices when recommending the movement of retirement assets from employer-sponsored defined contribution plans into other investments and accounts, especially when they pose greater risks and/or charge higher fees.
  • Suitability – OCIE will evaluate registered entities’ recommendations or determinations to invest retirement assets into complex or structured products and higher yield securities and whether the suitability of the recommendations or determinations are consistent with existing legal requirements.
  • Branch Offices – OCIE will focus on registered entities’ supervision of registered representatives and financial adviser representatives in branch offices, and attempt to identify branches that may be deviating from compliance practices of the firm’s home office.
  • Alternative Investment Companies – OCIE will continue to assess alternative investment companies and focus on: (i) leverage, liquidity and valuation policies and practices; (ii) factors relevant to the adequacy of the funds’ internal controls, including staffing, funding, and empowerment of boards, compliance personnel, and back-offices; and (iii) the manner in which such funds are marketed to investors.
  • Fixed Income Companies – OCIE will determine whether mutual funds with significant exposure to interest rate increases have implemented compliance policies and procedures and investment and trading controls sufficient to ensure that their funds’ disclosures are not misleading.
  1. Assessing issues related to market risks.  Specifically, OCIE has identified the following examination priorities:
  • Large Firm Monitoring – OCIE will continue to monitor the largest broker-dealers and asset managers to assess risks at individual firms.
  • Clearing Agencies – OCIE will continue to examine all clearing agencies designated as “systemically important” under the Dodd-Frank Act.
  • Cybersecurity – OCIE will continue to examine broker-dealers and investment advisers’ cybersecurity compliance and controls and expand these examinations to include transfer agents.
  • Potential Equity Order Routing Conflicts – OCIE will assess whether firms are prioritizing trading venues based on payments or credits for order flow in conflict with their best execution duties.
  1. Analyzing data to identify and examine registrants that may be engaging in illegal activity, such as excessive trading and penny stock, pump-and-dump schemes. Specifically, OCIE has identified the following examination priorities:
  • Recidivist Representatives – OCIE will continue to try to identify individuals with a history of misconduct and examine the firms that employ them.
  • Microcap Fraud – OCIE will continue to examine broker-dealers and transfer agents that aid and abet pump-and-dump schemes or market manipulation.
  • Excessive Trading – OCIE will continue to analyze data from clearing brokers to identify and examine brokers that engage in excessive trading.
  • Anti-Money Laundering – OCIE will continue to examine firms that have not filed suspicious activity reports (SARs) or provide customers with direct access to markets of higher-risk jurisdictions.

In addition, OCIE has identified other examination priorities for 2015, including:

  • Municipal Advisors – OCIE intends to examine newly registered municipal advisors to determine whether they comply with recently adopted SEC and Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board rules.
  • Proxy Services – OCIE intends to examine proxy advisory service firms and investment advisers’ compliance with their fiduciary duty in voting proxies on behalf of investors.
  • Never-Before-Examined Investment Companies – OCIE will conduct focused, risk-based examinations of registered investment company complexes that haven’t been examined before.
  • Fees and Expenses in Private Equity – this continues to be an area that OCIE is focused on.
  • Transfer Agents – OCIE intends to examine transfer agents, particularly those involved with microcap securities and private offerings.

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Written by:  Jay B. Gould and Jessica M. Brown

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (“SEC”) Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations released a “Risk Alert” on January 28, 2014, which focuses on the due diligence investment advisers perform in alternative investments[1] and managers for their clients. After observing an increasing trend in advisers recommending alternative investments to their clients, the SEC examined a group of SEC-registered investment advisers, who collectively manage more than $2 trillion. The purpose of the examination and the Risk Alert is to review how the advisers perform due diligence, utilize investment teams to review fund structures and complex investment strategies, and identify, control and disclose conflicts of interest.

While the Risk Alert focuses on the narrow market segment of advisers who recommend to their clients discretionary investments in alternative investments managed by outside advisers/managers, the recommendations and due diligence practices can serve as practical guidance for all investment advisers and fund managers.

Observations

The SEC notes four primary trends in the due diligence that advisers perform on alternative investments and their managers:

  1. Position-level transparency and client risk mitigation
  2. Use of third parties to supplement and validate information provided by managers
  3. Quantitative analyses and risk measures on the investment and managers
  4. Enhancing and expanding due diligence teams and policies

Warning Indicators

The SEC notes a number of red flags that advisers find with respect to managers that warrant additional due diligence. These warning signs include:

  • managers who refuse transparency requests;
  • performance returns that conflict with factors known to be associated with the manager’s strategy;
  • unclear investment and research process;
  • lack of a sufficient control environment and separation of duties between the business and investment units;
  • portfolio holdings that conflict with a purported strategy;
  • insufficiently knowledgeable personnel to carry out the strategy intended to be implemented;
  • changes in manager investment style;
  • investments that are overly complex or opaque;
  • lack of third-party administrator;
  • inexperienced auditor;
  • repeated changes in service providers;
  • unfavorable background check results;
  • discovery of undisclosed conflicts of interest;
  • insufficient compliance or operational programs; and
  • lack of sufficient fair valuation process.

Advisers should review whether their due diligence process identifies these warning indicators and whether there are additional warning indicators they should consider to meet their fiduciary obligations. 

Adviser Compliance Practices

The SEC identifies the areas in which they found material deficiencies or control weaknesses with the investment advisers. Based on the deficiencies the SEC identifies, advisers who recommend alternative investments should ensure:

  • the due diligence policies and procedures for alternative investments/managers are reviewed annually;
  • disclosures made to clients do not deviate from actual practices, are consistent with fiduciary principles and describe any notable exceptions to the adviser’s typical due diligence process;
  • marketing materials are not misleading or unsubstantiated regarding the scope and depth of the due diligence process;
  • due diligence processes are written policies that contain sufficient detail and require adequate documentation; and
  • if responsibilities are delegated to third-party service providers, periodic reviews of those service providers’ adherence to their agreements.

Conclusion

The SEC reminds advisers that they are fiduciaries and must act in the best interest of their clients. In order to meet their fiduciary obligations when selecting alternative investments for clients, an adviser must evaluate whether such investment meets the client’s investment objectives and is consistent with the strategies and principles of investment presented to the adviser by the manager.

While the Risk Alert focuses on a narrow market segment of advisers, the recommendations and due diligence practices have a broader application. Any SEC-registered adviser, exempt reporting adviser or state-registered adviser can review their own operational due diligence policies and procedures to see if they can be bolstered by incorporating any of the recommendations contained in the Risk Alert. Further, managers of alternative investments should consider whether any of their practices or policies are included in the list of warning indicators and make the changes necessary to smoothly pass an adviser’s due diligence process.


[1] Included in the SEC’s definition of “alternative investments” are hedge funds, private equity funds, venture capital funds, real estate funds, funds of private funds, and other private funds.